“And you have more knowledge than the imam, huh?” she asked, mockery in her tone.
I said nothing to this question, which was more a dare and a threat than it was a sincere inquiry. Whenever our conversations devolved into pulling rank, I lost interest in continuing the discussion. She knew just as well as I did that spiritual truth and falsehood were unaltered by someone’s “superiority” over another person, whether due to their knowledge, age, or worldly status. If it were, then she and her family would still be Christian.
When she and her family had converted to Islam, did she have more religious “knowledge” than the preacher of her childhood church? Did she have more seniority than her now elderly Christian parents who had raised her? Did she have a superior worldly status over all the wealthy friends and loved ones who blamed Islam for all her personal and financial struggles?
Yet somehow amidst all her religious “ignorance” and worldly “inferiority,” she was able to recognize the truth of Islam—despite how much she respected her preacher, loved her parents, and recognized her “inferior” worldly station.
Was I not able to do the same in the midst of religious falsehood taught under the guise of Islam?
But I kept my thoughts to myself. There was no use in saying anything further. At that point, it was clear that the aim of this discussion wasn’t to ascertain religious truth. It was to assign blame—to me as the “ignorant” troublemaker, and to her imam as the one to carry the burden of her soul.
But I can’t lie. A part of me didn’t blame her. Submitting to spiritual truth was much less pleasant than just pretending that the imam had some special divine knowledge that gave him permission to change the rules of Islam. It was the pretense that so many in our community carried.
I’d tried to find a way to agree with him myself. I told myself that maybe his new rules on who could marry whom and who could enter Paradise were just meant symbolically, like an allegorical story to teach a lesson. But no matter how hard I tried, my soul would not allow my mind to believe this lie.
The bottom line was that the imam’s new rules had very real consequences on the marriages of so many struggling believers, mainly women—and I had witnessed the negative effects of this personally. Not to mention that his new rules on who could enter Paradise had very obvious consequences on the foundational beliefs of Muslims. What could possibly be “allegorical” about that?
Yet still, I understood my friend’s inclination to go along with the imam’s false teachings. It was human nature, I suppose, to find difficulty reconciling the apparent sincerity and humility of someone you love and respect with the obvious spiritual falsehood they were living and teaching. I imagined that when she, like myself, read the ayaat in the Qur’an giving stern warnings to those who called people away from the path of Allah and who believed in part of the Book and rejected other parts, she couldn’t accept that they applied to personable and down-to-earth imam we all loved—despite the obvious fact that his very teachings bore witness to the fact that he was amongst them.
So it was easier to deny reality until he wasn’t.
Would You Make Iblis Your Sheikh?
I was in my twenties at the time I had that conversation with my friend. However, throughout my life I would continuously meet Muslims who defended following teachings that contradicted the Qur’an and prophetic Sunnah by pointing to the “superior knowledge” of the one they had chosen to misguide them. This always confounded me because in each and every case, these Muslims consistently rejected the teachings of other imams, sheikhs, and scholars who were teaching the truth.
Why then did these self-proclaimed “ignorant” Muslims not submit to the “superior knowledge” of the truthful imams, sheikhs, and scholars?
And why then did they repeatedly try to compel me and other believers to turn away from the teachings of these truthful men, and blindly follow their teachers? Was this really about following someone of “superior knowledge”, or was this about something else entirely?
It was while observing this puzzling phenomenon that I wrote this entry into my personal journal:
Shaytaan has more knowledge than I do, but that doesn’t mean I’ll make him my sheikh. And I certainly won’t be doing taqleed (blind following) of him. So yes, it’s very possible to have much less knowledge than someone and still recognize when they are wrong.
Even amongst scholars who profess Islam, there are scholars upon truth and scholars upon misguidance; and both have more knowledge than laypeople of either category.
Thus, it is not knowledge alone that qualifies someone to be our spiritual teacher. First and foremost, their foundational beliefs must be correct. But we won’t know what foundational beliefs are correct if our own are incorrect, or if we lack knowledge of where to learn them properly. As a spiritual teacher once said, “When your foundational knowledge of Islam is correct, not even a scholar can misguide you, bi’idhnillah.” May Allah protect us from misguidance, no matter how knowledgeable the teacher or beloved the caller.
So ask Allah to increase you in knowledge and right guidance. Because we are in the Last Days, and those carrying the title “scholar” are many. And every group will come to you claiming that they are right and the other groups are wrong. So be very careful whom you trust with teaching you how to purify your soul (tazkiyyatun-nafs). Some are actually teaching you how to corrupt it, may Allah protect us.
True scholars recognize that the Book of Allah and the prophetic teachings take precedence everything—even a scholar’s knowledge.
In Islam the very definition of scholarly knowledge is a detailed understanding of the Book of Allah and prophetic teachings, as they were taught at the time of revelation and understood by the Prophet (sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam) and his companions. For in his last sermon, the Prophet told us: “I leave behind two matters, and as long as you hold to them, you will never go astray: the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet” (Al-Muwaṭṭa 1661, sahih by Ibn Abdul Barr).
And he spoke the truth.
So choose the spiritual teacher whose scholarly knowledge is rooted in this authentic spiritual knowledge—not in esoteric claims of “secret knowledge” possessed by only a select few; of miraculous powers to heal the sick and answer prayers; or of spiritual sainthood and religious infallibility. No spiritual teacher is infallible in his understanding and teaching of Islam, except Prophet Muhammad himself.
Yes, we need to learn our faith from people of knowledge, as they are the inheritors of the prophetic knowledge.
But more importantly, we need to learn from people of truth.
And real scholars come with both: knowledge of prophetic teachings and adherence to spiritual truth. Because right guidance and principles of truth carry more weight than random “mountains of knowledge” any day—and always will.
The Path to Paradise Isn’t the Path to Hellfire
Allah would never make the path to Paradise something that is equally the path to Hellfire. So to believe you are obligated to follow without question any religious personality other than Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam), not only violates divine principles; it also violates common sense.
For how many religious personalities, past and present, call their followers to misguidance and disbelief? How then is it possible that our Lord would obligate us to follow someone without question—then place us in Hellfire if we die upon misguidance or disbelief?
Your blind following of anyone is the result of conscious, deliberate choice—while knowing full well you had other options, for better or worse.
Because on the Day of Judgment, you’ll have no other choice.
We Want What We Want, Period
One of the reasons that so many of us ignore this obvious weight upon our souls is that we are fixated on having specific outcomes in this world, not only in our spiritual practice but also in our wealth, marriages, and families. Thus, we follow imams and sheikhs who tell us what we want to hear—who tell us that we can “reinterpret” the guidance of Allah until we get what we want.
In these moments, we are drawing dangerously close to giving up the spiritual striving in the cause of Allah that is required by every believer. Thus, in these weak moments, our hearts are in danger of coming closer to disbelief than to emaan. This is a trait of nifaaq (hypocrisy), and the tendency toward hypocrisy looms in the heart of every human being—even the Muslim.
Whenever we profess belief on our tongues but our hearts are fixated on disobeying our Lord while we knowingly submit to falsehood and misguidance, we are falling into a type of nifaaq. Allah discusses this grave error of the hypocrites in the Qur’an, when He says what has been translated to mean, “…They were nearer to disbelief that day than to faith, saying with their mouths what was not in their hearts. And Allah is most Knowing of what they conceal” (Ali’Imraan, 3:167).
Unfortunately, we are in the Last Days, and many Muslims have embraced nifaaq as a way of life (may Allah guide us back to the proper practice and understanding of His deen).
It is this grave error that I discuss in this personal journal entry:
You have to care about your soul more than you care about the specifics of the temporary comforts and tests God will give you in this world. That’s what it boils down to. The reason many of us rush to listen to misguided imams and sheikhs forbidding what Allah has allowed (and permitting what Allah has forbidden) is because our hearts are closer to disbelief than to emaan. Thus, we want our Paradise here—whatever it takes.
So if that means pretending riba is allowed, so be it. If that means pretending divorce is always evil, so be it. If that means pretending polygyny is forbidden or disliked, so be it. If that means slandering a former mistress who has repented and is now a wife, so be it. If that means emotionally manipulating our children and other believers until they do what we say they must, so be it.
Whatever it takes.
Because our ailing hearts are so fixated on having a specific outcome in this world that we are willing to sacrifice our Hereafter to get it.
But the sincere believer knows you don’t need to change or reject the guidance of Allah to get what you want from this world.
Do the work. Make du’aa.
These five simple words represent the believer’s formula for success—in this world and in the Hereafter. Then they strive upon tawakkul until their hearts submit to the decision of their Lord, even if His decree is different from the outcome they desired.
This is what it means to have emaan. This is what it means to have tawakkul.
This is what it means to be a believer. This is what is means to be a Muslim, one who submits to the will of the Creator—instead of seeking to “force” the Creator (and the believers) to submit to you.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The world is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the unbeliever” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2956).
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Whoever should desire the transitory things [of this life], We hasten for him from it what We will to whom We will. Then We have made for him Hell, which he will [enter to] burn, censured and banished. But whoever desires the Hereafter and exerts the effort due to it while he is a believer, it is those whose effort is ever appreciated [by Allah]. To each [category] We extend – to these and to those – from the gift of your Lord. And never has the gift of your Lord been restricted. Look how We have favored [in provision] some of them over others. But the Hereafter is greater in degrees [of difference] and greater in distinction” (Al-Israa’, 17:18-21).
May Allah help us choose the Hereafter over the transient pleasures and comforts of this world.
Choose Submission and Self-Honesty
In reflecting on how to protect our spiritual practice from this severe trial of the soul, I penned this reminder to myself and fellow believers:
But how do we protect ourselves? How do we keep our hurting hearts from destroying our souls? By submitting to Allah, and being honest with ourselves.
So let’s be real.
It’s not that imam’s or sheikh’s “knowledge” that makes you support his teachings: That riba is permissible “in our times.” That a woman should be prevented from divorce. That polygyny is forbidden or disliked “in modern times.” That a former mistress is always an adulteress and a “dishonorable woman” and can never be a real wife. That you have the right to control your children’s thoughts, beliefs, and choices. That you have the right to dictate what your spouse—and other believers—choose in their personal lives and marriages.
Because we know full well: That riba is haraam, period. That divorce is a permissible option for men and women. That polygyny—and every other halaal life choice written in the Qur’an—is permissible until the end of time. That repentance, self-correction, and halaal marriage is the right of every believer, irrespective of their past sins. That our children belong to Allah and thus have souls, minds, and lives of their own. That we are not Allah, and thus have no right to dictate how our spouse—or any believing soul—lives out their life in this world.
So why then do we reject what we know from Allah, then eagerly point to the “knowledge” of that imam or sheikh who is lying on Allah and His deen?
Because it’s easier than pointing to ourselves. It’s easier than pointing to our ailing souls. It’s easier than pointing to our hurting hearts. And it’s easier than pointing to our own desires to do exactly what that imam or sheikh is doing: changing the teachings of Allah and His deen to suit ourselves.
But dear struggling soul, it’s not too late for you. You can repent and self-correct now. So supplicate to your Lord for forgiveness, right guidance, and protection from following misguidance—even when it appeals to every hurting part of you. Then supplicate to Al-Kareem (The Most Generous) for the life and marriage you desire in this world, for there is no need to change the deen of Allah to get what you want from life.
Then sit down in honesty and vulnerability and sincerely reflect on how you can get the wealth and property you desire—without riba. Sit down in honesty and vulnerability and pour out your heart to your wife, telling her that you don’t want to lose her. Sit down in honesty and vulnerability and pour out your heart to your husband, letting him know that you fear your heart cannot handle polygyny.
Sit down in honesty and vulnerability and confess that it’s hard to see a former mistress change her life and potentially reach a spiritual and worldly status that is equal to or better than you. Sit down in honesty and vulnerability and let your spouse and children know about the life you hope and desire for them—and for yourself with them.
And sit down in honesty and vulnerability and admit you have no right to tell another believing soul how to handle the blessings and halaal options their Lord has offered them in this world.
Then ask Allah to help your ailing soul submit to Him…
Especially when your anger, pride, and hurting heart makes it so much easier to submit to yourself.
Soul-Work Is No Easy Task
But don’t misunderstand. Detaching your heart from being fixated on specific outcomes in this world is no easy task. Nearly every one of us, at some point in our lives, becomes unhealthily attached to a temporary comfort or test that God has given us in this world. For most of us, this happens continuously. The human heart was created weak, so it’s a tremendous task for this restless piece of flesh to submit to spiritual purity with any consistency.
Our weak heart gathers strength only through recognizing this ever-present weakness and then turning it over to the Creator for guidance and strength. And we do this daily. This is the very essence of jihaad-ul-nafs (the soul’s internal battle against itself).
Some days our soul wins. Some days it is overcome by the nafs. Triumph is not achieved through avoiding this loss. It is achieved through never giving up the internal fight.
Those who ultimately lose this battle are not “the weak,” for we are all weak, as God tells us: ”…and mankind was created weak” (4:28). Thus, these losers are either those who submit to their weakness and thus give up the battle altogether, or they are those who imagine themselves to have so much spiritual strength that they ultimately deny that there is an internal battle to fight at all.
This latter category are those whose hearts are covered with destructive pride because they have either abandoned spirituality altogether, or they imagine that their self-assigned piety—whether due to their “good deeds” or “religious knowledge”—grants them a spiritual station above the “weak and ignorant” children of Adam. Yet the truth is that we are all, to some extent, weak and ignorant children of Adam. And no amount of good deeds or religious knowledge cancels out our humanity. Each and every human heart has weakness and an ever-present inclination toward ignorance and self-deception.
Thus, amongst the most ignorant and misguided souls are those who imagine that their “good deeds” and “religious knowledge” have protected them from ignorance, self-deception, and misguidance.
…Or that by blindly following someone with the lofty religious title of imam, sheikh, or scholar; we will not be held accountable for our own ignorance, self-deception, and misguidance.
By Allah, not a single one of us will escape accountability in the Hereafter by pointing to someone else and blaming them for our own ignorance and voluntary choice to follow false teachings. For our Lord has promised that no soul shall bear the burden of another. So take full responsibility for bearing the burden of your soul now.
Because after you are lowered beneath the ground, you’ll have no other choice.
Allah says, “And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And if a heavily laden soul calls [another] to [carry some of] its load, nothing of it will be carried, even if he should be a close relative. You can only warn those who fear their Lord unseen and have established prayer. And whoever purifies himself only purifies himself for [the benefit of] his soul. And to Allah is the [final] destination” (Faatir, 35:18).
He also says, “…The last of them will say about the first of them. ‘Our Lord, these had misled us, so give them a double punishment of the Fire.’ He will say, ‘Double for all.’ But you do not know’” (Al-‘Araaf, 7:38).
Allah further warns us against assigning piety or spiritual purity to ourselves or others when He says, “…So ascribe not purity to yourselves. He knows best who fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him” (An-Najm, 53:32).
He also reassures the believers who are striving upon right guidance while warning others to not go astray: “You can only warn one who follows the Message and fears the Most Merciful unseen. So give him good tidings of forgiveness and a reward most generous” (Yaa-Seen, 36:11).
O Allah, Ar-Rahmaan! We beg You to make us amongst those who follow Your Message and heed to warnings You give us in this world! And, O Allah, Al-Kareem! We beg You to take us as believers and protect our hearts from becoming attached to this prison while imagining we desire its temporary pleasures more than the everlasting home near You in Paradise!
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.